Cold vs. Flu

Kristin Hall, FNP
Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP Written by Our Editorial Team Last updated 7/27/2020

When you’re sick, you realize how you take your healthy days for granted. And whether you have a cold or the flu, getting better as soon as possible is a top priority. 

While some of the symptoms of the cold and the flu are similar, and they’re both caused by viruses, there are some significant differences between the two illnesses. 

Perhaps the two biggest differences involve severity and treatment. 

Colds are bad, but the flu generally feels worse. And while neither has a “cure,” antiviral medications may speed resolution of the influenza virus.

If you’re sick and not sure what’s wrong, talking with a healthcare professional for real medical advice is the best solution. But in the meantime, here’s what you need to know about the differences between the common cold and the flu. 

What Is a Cold? 

The common cold is a common illness caused by at least 200 different viruses

Most colds are caused by strains of the rhinovirus, but others are caused by coronavirus and respiratory syncytial virus strains. 

A quick sidebar: although some coronavirus strains cause the common cold, the strain that causes COVID-19 — responsible for a global pandemic in 2020 — is not the common cold.

The viruses that cause the cold are spread through small droplets of liquid. 

Of course, if someone carrying the cold virus sneezes in your face, you’re susceptible. But you’re also susceptible if someone, for instance, sneezes in their hand and then touches a doorknob you later use. You spread these “germs” to your body when you touch your face — rub your eye, pick your teeth, hold your forehead, etc.

What Is the Flu? 

Like the cold, the flu is a virus — several viruses, in fact. 

The influenza A and B viruses are responsible for the flu, as we know it, infecting people generally in the winter during “flu season.” 

Also like the common cold, the flu is contagious, and a respiratory illness that infects the nose, throat, and occasionally lungs.

The flu travels from person to person on droplets, like the cold, but is believed less likely to survive on surfaces like door knobs. 

Instead, being in close quarters with someone who has the flu could put you at risk of contacting the droplets released when they talk, sneeze or cough.

Taken every flu season, flu vaccines can protect you against certain strains of the influenza virus.

Cold Symptoms 

Symptoms of the common cold typically last around seven to 10 days, barring any complications. They include: 

  • Nasal congestion and runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Cough
  • Sneezing
  • Headaches
  • Mild body aches
  • Fatigue 

Occasionally, a cold can make you susceptible to infections, such as sinus or ear infections, or tonsillitis. If this is the case, your symptoms will be more severe and may include signs of infection, such as a fever. 

Flu Symptoms 

The flu has some symptoms in common with the cold. However, unlike the common cold, symptoms of the flu generally come on more suddenly. They can include: 

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Nasal congestion and runny nose
  • Body aches
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Vomiting and diarrhea

Fevers are common with the flu, as is a headache and severe body aches. However, it’s important to note that not everyone with the flu may have these telltale symptoms 

Overall, the symptoms of the flu are more intense than those of the common cold. These symptoms generally last five to seven days.

Cold Treatment 

You’ve heard it before: there is no cure for the common cold. You cannot treat a virus with antibiotics and there are no medications that can shorten the duration of a cold. 

You basically have to ride it out, and use what you can to minimize the symptoms.

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen may help manage aches and pains, though they should not be taken by people with asthma. 

Over-the-counter decongestants and/or antihistamines may relieve sinus congestion, coughing and runny nose. 

Many cold remedies contain both of these medications.

Flu Treatment 

Your healthcare provider may do a flu test to ensure the virus you have is, in fact, an influenza virus. 

Caught early, they may be able to prescribe an antiviral drug to lessen the symptoms and shorten the duration of the flu. 

However, because it is a virus, antibiotics don’t help and — like the cold — you’re stuck riding out the miserable symptoms. 

NSAIDs like acetaminophen can help bring down your fever and treat body and headaches. The standard advice for someone infected with the flu is to rest and drink plenty of fluids.

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.